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Editorial - Skip the penalty phase

April 11, 1997

A bill to increase the penalty for persons who lead police on high-speed chases is in trouble in the West Virginia legislature, apparently because some lawmakers fear it would give some small police departments too much power. We suggest that the answer to this problem is not increased penalties, but increased cooperation between departments.

Del. Larry Faircloth's bill was prompted by the death of Amanda Smailes, a 21-year-old Inwood, W.Va. woman who was killed after her car was struck by an auto being pursued by West Virginia State Police.

Following that death, The Herald-Mail took the editorial position that technology ought to exist to allow police to stop vehicles without pursuing them at high speeds (Police believe the vehicle which struck Smailes' car may have been traveling at 100 mph when the crash took place).

Such devices do exist, according to manufacturers who contacted us. The two on the market now - others are being researched - involve devices that are placed in the road ahead of vehicles whose drivers are trying to elude police. As cars go over these devices, they pick up small spikes that slowly deflate the tires.

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But as one manufacturer pointed out, these devices aren't truly effective unless every agency in a region has them, and cooperates in using them. In this area, for example, a car being pursued by police could easily cross state lines, and if there's not a department on the other side of the line with the tire-deflating devices, the "eluder," as they're called, may escape, or worse, kill someone in a crash.

Instead of worrying about the penalties, which don't seem to concern a great number of offenders who don't believe they'll be caught, we recommend police and lawmakers concentrate on a strategy for catching these people quickly and safely. Forcing a small police department to cooperate with other nearby police agencies would be one way to ensure that it couldn't abuse its authority. Everybody - police and criminals alike - tend to be on their best behavior when they're being watched.

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